Town Council advances Obey Creek talks

06/24/2014 9:05 AM

06/24/2014 9:05 AM

The Town Council voted 5-3 Monday to start negotiating with Obey Creek developers after hearing from nearly a dozen speakers who asked them to wait.

Resident Susana Dancy, who served on last year’s Obey Creek Compass Committee, asked the council to consider what would complement the development across U.S. 15-501 at Southern Village.

The council is looking for ways to generate safe bike and pedestrian traffic between the developments. One idea is to build a parking deck and a retail destination, such as a grocery store, on the town’s Southern Village park-and-ride lot. A planned bridge across U.S. 15-501 could link it to Obey Creek.

“All parties should enter negotiations knowing specifically what they want and what tradeoffs they’re willing to make,” Dancy said. “It’s not clear to the public or to the committee that the Town Council really knows what it wants or has articulated that to us.”

If approved, the Obey Creek residential, office and retail project would be built on 35 acres facing the highway. Another 80 acres could be preserved, potentially for public or recreational use. A school site also is proposed for some of the wooded area east of Wilson Creek.

A final vote isn’t expected before next year, but the council will start talking this fall after getting long-awaited traffic, financial and environmental studies. Council members Matt Czajkowski, Donna Bell and Lee Storrow voted against moving forward at this time.

Developer Roger Perry said East West Partners Management Co. is ready to talk with the town after waiting nearly five years.

“Make a decision tonight either to enter into the negotiations subject to these reports or make the decision not to enter into negotiations and quit wasting your time, these folks’ time and our time,” he said.

The negotiation will include work sessions and more public meetings. Either party could back out at any time, leaving the developer with the option of seeking a traditional special-use permit and rezoning.

There are several lingering issues, including the project’s size and how it could complement Southern Village, accommodate additional traffic, and preserve and protect public land.

Czajkowski said the town can only resolve outstanding issues after getting information about all the different possibilities. Despite the committee’s suggestion that the developer also propose a smaller project, the plan has remained at roughly 1.6 million square feet.

That includes 327,000 square feet of retail – just shy of University Mall’s 365,000 square feet – and several hundred one- and two-bedroom apartments.

“The fear here to me, and I think others, is when you start talking about negotiations, you negotiate from a point at which you’re at, and the question is how far you negotiate down from it, if at all,” Czajkowski said.

Perry warned a too-small project won’t benefit the town or the investors. The only recourse would be to build single-family houses, but they won’t be annexed into the town, he said. The Obey Creek mixed-use project is expected to be annexed, providing the town with more commercial tax dollars.

“If it goes below a million square feet, then it breaks down to a point where it is not economically viable as an enterprise,” he said.

Council member Maria Palmer said she doesn’t care if the plan proposes 2 million square feet. Some residents would like to see a larger project with more density and affordable housing, she said, and the council should negotiate for community values, not cede the decision to a committee.

“There are people who feel that this council is making decisions that don’t face reality,” she said. “The traffic impact is going to be peanuts compared to what is coming from Chatham (County) with that development there. We’re trying to be responsible, we’re trying to get the data, we’re trying to negotiate in good faith, but this is something that needs to happen and it needs to be a beautiful development that brings to Chapel Hill what we need.”

If approved, Obey Creek would be built over 20 years and include transportation and other public improvements. The council approved its second development agreement earlier Monday with Glen Lennox developer Clay Grubb. The town’s first agreement was for UNC’s Carolina North campus.

A few speakers Monday compared the Glen Lennox talks with Obey Creek. Council member Lee Storrow said that sets a dangerous precedent, because the projects are different. Compass Committee member Jeanne Brown said Perry also approaches negotiations differently than Grubb does, which might make some people think the town can’t get an agreement for his project.

“Actually, the key to getting there is you,” she told the council. “Where Clay Grubb may have thrown out his plan and worked with the community, your community has come to you with a vision and you have a chance to sit down with (the committee’s) report and Roger’s plan and come up with unified plan if you take the time.”

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